Beirut, a city portraying nostalgia of multiculturalism and possessing vibrant geographic and social spheres was rocked by a devastating blast early in August when almost 2,740 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse exploded as it caught fire in what officially termed as the ‘negligence of the authorities’ in the failure of accountability of the seized amount of ammonium nitrate from a Mozambique-bound freight.
Besides leveling the infrastructure of the port itself, a life-line for a man-made acute economic crisis in Lebanon, which import the majority of its food supplies and store grain reserves in the port, the wider tangible consequences of the catastrophic blast illustrates the gravity as the departing of the dark clouds put light on the industrial infrastructural, economical, and social scale of the destruction it caused in the city.
In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic blast, French President Emmanuel Macron in a surprise visit to the disaster-wrought city called for the easing of the collective wound of the people and promising his support to the humanitarian efforts while engaging with the political leadership of the country to establish a sense of political order and rescue the country from its dire economic situation. However, beneath the veil of humanitarian assistance, lies a deeper meaning to the visit. Keeping with the cynicism in international relations, industrial-scale destruction though very inhumane also invites great opportunities for influence and financial operations by the extraterritorial powers in the regions which are geostrategically very important in the global political chessboard.
Behind the veil of a visit by French President and other pledged international support, is the ghost of the shock doctrine. In her seminal book ‘The Shock Doctrine’, Naomi Klein explains the idea that in the aftermath of national crisis either natural or man-made, the developed nations strive to introduce shock therapy by pushing for radical, neoliberal reforms in the governance and economic architecture of the disaster-hit countries, the reforms which in normal circumstances would invite large protests by the public.
The approach characterized as ‘Disaster Capitalism’ strives to project economic and political partnerships and development projects with neoliberal economic underpinning which are in nature exploitative and allowed for the increase in the influence of the developed nations in the country’s economy and political affairs.
The devastating toll of the Beirut blast and the proclamations of support in the immediate aftermath by the international powers such as France or international economic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank cannot fail in echoing the trauma of the shock therapy which might be awaiting the economically and politically depressed people of Lebanon.
It is reportedly estimated that the economic value of the blast which hit the blast is around $15 billion without accounting the social costs. The blast adds to the woes of the economically depressed Lebanese people while the political pact between all political parties which benefit from the confessional constitutional system remains intact. From the mishandling of the dollar reserves by the banks, which are controlled by the same political elite, to the crippling unemployment and poverty ratios and acute food shortages and inflated food prices, there’s a conspicuous silence by the international powers and institutions to fundamentally alter the constitutional system of the country.
The reforms which these international powers and institutions seek in Lebanon are more about reconstituting the economic relationship between the State and the People with the push for structural reforms will include public-private partnerships in running traditional public goods and services including electricity, water, and gas. Lebanon also does not stand alone in this context as the wider Middle East is embracing a more neoliberal economic framework in their polities notwithstanding the brewing troubles it may cost in the long term.
The call for ‘reforms’ by these international powers and institutions in Lebanon though may excite short term advantages for the people as some officials will be sacrificed in the move toward calming public anger which is now more emboldened with the public-pressured resignation of the Lebanese government recently. However, in the long term, as the shock doctrine historically illustrates, the consequences of these economic and systemic reforms are more consequential than one can imagine.
The people in Lebanon are under no illusion that their chronic problems are not a product of merely one sectarian political party or another, but they are the product of the entire constitutional confessional order which came into being as a result of the Taif Agreement after the civil war in Lebanon. This system begets a political class comprising of all sects – majorly Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians – who despite their political divergences in influence and administration have a deep congruence over the continuation of the present system.
This system ensures the perpetuation of the capital accumulation and power concentration and contestation by the political elites in different areas of public administration, defense, and foreign relations whilst the structural economic and social inequalities ravage the foundations of the political order. Any tangible change which breaks the insidious loop of outrageous corruption, organized violence, and concentrated and closed politics will not come by introducing shock therapy by exploiting the gullibility and profound trauma of the people, the real change can only come in Lebanon through the revamping of the entire constitutional order.